On 19 July 1900 the body of a woman was recovered from the canal in Mullingar.
The body was that of Sarah Pender, an inmate at the District Lunatic Asylum who had escaped on the night of Wednesday 18 July. Joyce, who was in Mullingar at the time, used this incident in a scene in Stephen Hero.
Sarah Pender was from Raharney, near Killucan, about 20 miles from Mullingar, and had only been admitted to the Asylum a short time before. Her body was found in the Royal Canal near the Friar’s Mill area of Mullingar, between the Dublin Road Bridge and the Harbour Street Bridge of the canal, about 1km south-west of the Asylum. She was wearing only a chemise and there seemed to be indications of a struggle.
An inquest into the drowning was held on Friday 20 July and the news was reported in the Westmeath Examiner the following day under the headline “The Dangers of the Royal Canal – Sad Death of an Asylum Patient.” The article gave a description of the state of the body when it was discovered, and noted that this was not the first canal drowning: “The occurrence is an extremely sad and painful one, but so far as the loss of life is concerned is not an infrequent one in Mullingar, for the canal has been frequently asked to give up its dead…”
Joyce used this incident as background to a scene in Stephen Hero. Stephen Daedalus has travelled to Mullingar and is staying with his godfather, Mr Fulham. He meets Nash, a fellow-pupil from his Belvedere College days, who used to bully him in school, and Nash introduces Stephen to Garvey, a journalist with the Westmeath Examiner. Nash, Garvey and Stephen go walking together, and come upon the scene of the discovery of a woman’s body on the canal bank.
A crowd has gathered around the body which has just been pulled from the canal, and a butcher’s boy is telling about coming across the body and fishing it out of the water. People are saying that the woman had escaped from the asylum, and they criticise the nurses for not minding the patients. The doctor arrives, pronounces the woman dead, and orders a cart to be brought. Stephen’s friends wander away but Stephen’s attention is caught by pieces of torn paper floating in the water near the feet of the body, on one of which is printed ‘The Lamp,’ the name of a Catholic magazine.
Unfortunately, none of the Mullingar episode made it from Stephen Hero into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Sources & Further Reading:
Westmeath Examiner, Saturday 21 July 1900.
Joyce, James: Stephen Hero, edited by Theodore Spence, John J Slocum, & Herbert Cahoon, New York: New Directions, 1963.